Greenwich Mean Time Zone UTC+00:00
Capital City Reykjavik
Currency Icelandic króna
National Day 17 June
“The pandemic has had serious consequences around the world, and here in the UK there are many bereaved families and people suffering, so everything else pales in comparison,” notes Iceland’s new Ambassador Sturla Sigurjónsson. Since his arrival back in November, with his wife Elin and their youngest son, he says “it has been impressive to witness the solidarity shown by British people to get beyond COVID-19, and the efficient mass vaccination programme. Of course, everybody looks forward to a return to normalcy, including foreign diplomats in London. As you know, diplomacy is basically about interacting with other people.” He’s thankful that Iceland is in a fairly positive situation in comparison with other European countries, but he admits “it’s a smaller society, and more manageable with regards to borders. But this can change quickly, so we have to be careful.”
Mr Sigurjónsson first came to London as a child in 1964, and many times since for both work and pleasure. “With so many good memories, it is strange to experience this great metropolis under lockdown.”
Born and raised in Reykjavik, he joined the foreign service in 1987. During the first half of his career, he served in a multilateral capacity in the Icelandic missions to NATO, the UN and the EU. The latter half has been mostly bilateral, serving as Ambassador in over a dozen countries, including Canada and India, with many side accreditations. “In a relatively small Foreign Service like ours, we have to multi-task,” he comments.
Between postings, Mr Sigurjónsson served in the Foreign Ministry as Director General, first as Defence, and then Political Affairs, before being seconded to the Prime Minister’s Office as Foreign Policy advisor. Over three years, he served two Prime Ministers; “an experience that I would not have missed,” followed by a stint as Permanent Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Considering his vast catalogue of experience, he says, “Most people will pick up one or two things on the road of life, so to speak. One does unconsciously gather and store a lot of information. Importantly, one learns how to apply it.”
Now as Ambassador in London, he comments, “Iceland and the UK are neighbours who share history and culture, commerce and alliances. Our people have the same basic values and mutual interests, and Brexit will not change any of that. The UK remains an important European country, so I don’t really foresee any fundamental changes to the bilateral relationship for that reason.” Nevertheless, he says, the UK is Iceland’s second largest trading partner, and “post-Brexit adaptation will require the Embassy’s attention and efforts during the coming years. Iceland and the UK are neighbouring allies and we have mutual interests in gaining stability and security in the north Atlantic. These tasks, and the daily tasks of the embassy, including business, culture promotion and consular issues will take up most of my time.”
In the run up to COP26 in November, Mr Sigurjónsson says that “both countries are committed to combatting climate change and reducing carbon emissions. There’s a lot of unrealised potential for political cooperation in this area.” He admits that “Iceland is in the enviable position of almost being completely green in terms of electricity and spacing heating. We have announced ambitious goals for cutting emissions from 2030, going from 40 per cent to 55 per cent and reaching carbon neutrality by 2040. Iceland is a frontrunner when it comes to carbon removal, and there is promising research and development taking place in the utilisation of hydrogen. Iceland is in a rather unique position.” Iceland’s experience of developing geothermal technology over the past 50 years has meant their expertise has become exportable. “Our experts now travel the world teaching and sharing on these issues.”
Iceland, however, is not without diplomatic challenges. “These are the same challenges we have had for decades. Iceland is a smaller state with an open exporting economy, and safeguarding our values and interests requires continued vigilance and effort on our part.” Additionally, Iceland is an economy largely reliant on sustainable use of natural resources, be it fisheries, renewable energy or nature tourism. He says, “We are brought up to expect the unpredictable forces of nature in Iceland. In a globalised twenty-first century, we must also contend with human activities that can adversely affect the use of these natural resources, be it pollution, or pandemics.”
Aside from reading history and biographies, the Ambassador enjoys fishing for salmon and trout in his rare downtime. “For someone interested in people and places, working in the foreign service is a privilege, and it is important to make the most of each day, regardless of minor inconveniences. Sometimes we are lucky and get to see history in the making!” he exclaims.
Despite its size, Iceland has emerged as a pioneer of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. As part of its ‘Pathway to COP’ programme, the World Economic Series (WES) hosted by Diplomat magazine and PPP explored how Iceland’s experience can inform other countries seeking to develop carbon management strategies –